There have been other fights, he says, in particular his struggle with the public perception of him. “I don’t really want the kind of Englishness that I have represented. People assume that I’m an aristocrat but I don’t really feel part of any class. I resent being stuck in that bracket, in anachronistic aspic.”
Does being seen as a toff really matter any more? “Now we have Eddie Redmayne I suppose it doesn’t. But I’ve been misconstrued because I speak in a certain way. I find it obnoxious how it defines you, somehow limits your ability to understand the human condition. You can’t be allowed near emotions, you play these curling-lipped haughty characters. This awful label – ‘the posh Toby Stephens’. I’m not posh!”
He certainly sounds posh, but he attributes this to his mother and father, the actors Maggie Smith, grande dame of Downton and best actress Oscar winner for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and the late Robert Stephens, her co-star in that film. “I remember my parents being really on me about speaking a certain way when I was young.” Why? “I think because they came from a class that aspired to talk like that.” Yet Stephens has never changed his accent. “No, it would be like being in denial about what you are.”
Smith and Stephens divorced in 1975 and Toby was sent to Seaford College, a public school. “Fairly second rate, it wasn’t Eton,” he says. “Educationally I wasn’t up there, maybe below the middle. But I think I was a happy kid, I had nothing to compare it to.” Tellingly, for someone whose parents were actors, he says of his own children, Eli (aged eight), Tallulah (seven) and Kura (four), from his marriage with New Zealand actor Anna-Louise Plowman: “The thing is to make them feel that they are central and more important than any of that acting stuff.”
Filming the first season of Black Sails in South Africa, he struggled with leaving them behind. “It was tough for me emotionally but particularly for my wife, dealing with three kids and also having a career.” Last season he fixed the problem by bringing the family to South Africa for the shoot, and Plowman even got a part.